Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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Being Anglo-Irish - A Hyphenated Existence?

This column appeared in The Dubliner in June 2001.

The best thing about being Anglo-Irish is that you can get away with just about anything. The Irish think you're English; the English think you're Irish. Deep down, you know you're not technically either. But if you play it well, you can be better than both. You can swing merrily on the hyphen between Anglo and Irish, reaping the rewards of what might otherwise be a catastrophic identity crisis.

Generally I choose to be Irish. I reason that my family has been living in County Carlow for more than 300 years and therefore I am Irish. This enables me to be anti-English when I'm called upon to do so. I can shamelessly unfurl a tricolour, belt out a rebel song, accuse the Queen of being a trumped up German peasant and even laugh at the Scots for still having her head on their postage stamp. I clench my fists for Ireland in every sport there is, knowing victory will prolong and enhance the positive karma across my homeland. I feel Ireland in my bones. I know what makes the Irish rock. I am a proud and noble Irishman.

But sometimes I cannot be Irish. There will be a look or a glance from somebody with penetrating eyes who will smell the blood of an Englishman cascading through my bones. I do not argue with these people. The evidence is all there. My gene pool was created from a settler stock of excellent, if occasionally debauched, pedigree. I took my first swim in a Church of Ireland baptismal bowl. I grew up in one of the biggest houses in Ireland, complete with a household staff who referred to me as "Master Alexander" (although in private I'm quite sure I was "the little bollix"). I went to boarding school when I was 7 years old. By the age of 10, I knew it was "sofa" not "couch", "pudding" not "desert". I studied for my A-levels in a Scottish public school where the bushy-eyed headmaster forbade us from conversing with the local chappies, plebeians that they were. For the first 18 years of my life, it seemed as though the Fates were absolutely determined to mould me into an Englishman.

But I was a stubborn and feisty young man and so I tumbled into an arena perhaps familiar to all Anglo-Irelanders alive today. This is the No Man's Land of Personal Identity where you float in a cloud of perpetual bewilderment as to who on Earth you really are. Sure, we are all entitled to be confounded thus. But perhaps it is easier for an Anglo-Irishman to paint his schizophrenia in simple colours. My past is English. My present is Irish. Is the past myself or can I get away with living for the moment like everyone else does? Yes, of course I can. But I'm still curious about my past. I still have the urge to understand why I grew up speaking posh yet feeling Irish.

Time has been kind to my generation of Anglos. While we may sometimes mourn for the simple elegance of our tribal elders, I believe we're more capable of understanding Modern Ireland than they were. Our parents and grandparents tended to live isolated lives, clinging on to all the values and, yes, prejudices, they had inherited from their own forbears, the men, and very rarely women, who ruled Ireland during the days of the Ascendancy. Their Ireland was a confused Ireland, first a Free State, then a Republic. They had been quietly deposed from power and now their traditional enemies were all around. A siege mentality entered the Anglo-Irish psyche. A mentality that said one must not flinch in the face of the rabble. Do not marry beneath yourself. Ensure your children are raised and reared as you were. Insist they keep their distance from the vulgarities and inclinations of the maddening crowds. And don't say "pardon?", say "what?".

I wonder did our Neanderthal ancestors ever grumble and moan about how backward their grandfathers were.

"Ah, for feck's sake, Grampa! D'ya not see that if we actually built a decent mudhut and started breeding pigs around it, we wouldn't need to keep shifting camp every two weeks? When we're hungry, we just go outside and bop one of the pigs on the head. And then we can stop wasting our time sharpening these damned flints all day, eh?"

I do not condemn previous generations for the ideals they believed in. They were of a different age, an age they tried hard to conserve. But now that their age has proved itself defunct, I am trying to identify what was good and helpful about it. I'll keep you posted.

A Zimbabwean recently told me the only way forward for Africa is for everyone to drop the tribal thing. He's quite right. This is the way forward for mankind. I am as proud of my Anglo-Irish pedigree as I am of my Irish present. Equally I blush for the sins of my colonial forefathers as I do for the way we allowed Westshite to become millionaires. So it sometimes suits to swing on the Anglo-Irish hyphen.

And I tell you something else for nothing; American chicks love us. It's the accent, you see. "Not only is this guy Irish but, shoot, he sounds just like that drop dead double-o-seven honky". Gentlemen, if you wish to learn the way to an American woman's heart, start singing Christy Moore songs in a Richard Burton accent.

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